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Curriculum Q & A Blog, Question 30

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Do you have questions about teaching the EL Education K–5 Language Arts Curriculum? We've got answers!

Come back every week for the latest from the Curriculum Q & A Blog.


Question: How can I develop the kind of active, collaborative classroom culture needed to teach the curriculum well? 

The half-way point of the school year is upon us! We thought it would be a good time to focus a few of our posts on classroom culture and management. We find that the long stretch between winter and spring break is often the time when this focus is needed most. All of us need a refresh and a reset from time to time. 

The truth is that all of the work you do to teach your students to read and write and comprehend complex text with this curriculum will be easier for you and more effective for your students if you spend some time throughout the year cultivating the soil of your classroom culture. Managing an active classroom full of students doing collaborative work, which is what our curriculum requires, is different from managing a quiet classroom full of students doing independent seat work.

“They like taking responsibility and ownership for their learning and realizing ‘I’m in charge of my learning now, I’m in charge of my own behavior, I’m in charge of my management.’ That’s a very empowering position for a second-grader to be in.”

–Katie Benton, Grade 2 Teacher, Greenville, South Carolina


Cultivating a High-Achieving Classroom

There’s a certain instantly recognizable energy present in a high-achieving classroom. You can see it in the faces of the students: lighting up as they make new connections between their background knowledge and their reading, or settling into deep concentration on an entry ticket. You can hear it in the respectful but warm conversations that occur between student and teacher, and in the way students take control of their classroom routines and procedures with only the gentlest of reminders. You can touch it: the poster of jointly written classroom norms, the materials organized and ready for students when they enter.

A successful classroom is obvious to all our senses. But the steps to take to create that classroom often are not. As a result, teachers can be at a loss, particularly as novice educators, as to what “magic” is needed to keep students engaged, on task, accountable, compassionate, and safe. It can seem to be a kind of “secret sauce,” or perhaps something only certain teachers are born with. Teachers who have the magic often have a difficult time explaining what their magic is—and yet they will also tell you that the most brilliant, creative lesson plan in the world will not work without it.

In fact, effective classroom management is not magic, secret, or a lucky gift given to a chosen few. It is this: the teacher, with his or her students, taking full responsibility for developing thoughtful, proactive, foundational management structures that are implemented and reinforced throughout every learning experience. It starts with the belief that students can and will succeed with effective support, and it is one of the most valuable investments of time you can make. The best news of all is that it is something every teacher can learn, practice, and master.

Good classroom management practice comes under many names: “the orderly classroom,” “the rigorous classroom,” or “the focused classroom.” We invite you to think of it as “the self-managed classroom.” A self-managed classroom is respectful, active, collaborative, and growth-oriented.


A Closer Look at the Self-Managed Classroom

By using the term “self-managed,” we don’t mean to imply that classrooms will run themselves or that students don’t need the authority and support of their teachers—academically and behaviorally. Rather, self-management is an ethos and a belief system that permeates the classroom and says students have the power, within themselves, to make wise choices that best serve them as learners and people and maintain a respectful classroom culture. Self-discipline is the end goal of all management structures. Students and teachers in the self-managed classroom are people who have self-knowledge, self-compassion, and self-control.

As a result, students in a self-managed classroom do not constantly need authority figures to compel them to exhibit correct behavior; ultimately, with guidance and practice, they own and enact that behavior themselves. Students reach this point through the consistent implementation of the formative assessment practices of modeling, practice, and reflection.

Finally, students in a self-managed classroom also understand that a “self” does not stand alone. A healthy sense of self necessarily includes a strong sense of community. Self-managed classrooms know and nurture their place as a learning community unto themselves and alongside other classrooms with their own identities within a broader school community.

Self-managed classrooms share basic characteristics, no matter the age of the students. These characteristics are rooted strongly in high behavioral and academic expectations, which in turn positively reinforce and support each other.

A Self-Managed Classroom Is Respectful

Respect is the bottom line for all academic and social interactions in the classroom. The teacher explicitly leads and models for students an unwavering disposition of respect in the way she interacts with the class and with her colleagues. Students are held to impeccable standards of respect toward each other and toward adults. Norms for respectful communication are set, modeled, and enforced without compromise. Cultural differences in the classroom are honored and respected. Students are not simply directed to “be respectful,” however. They discuss respect every day; they hold themselves and each other accountable for respectful behavior. They are considered partners in the learning process, deserving the respect and expectations given to adults: engagement, support, and accountability. As a result, students feel safe and trust one another.

A Self-Managed Classroom Is Active

In a self-managed classroom, all students contribute to the learning experience and are held accountable for that contribution. Multiple entry points are evident, honoring different learning styles, strengths, comfort levels, and development. Self-managed classrooms help students learn about their own social and academic strengths and contribute to the class in significant and varied ways. Students and teachers shift through multiple configurations of learning (whole class lessons, group work, independent research, guided work) with grace and speed, with the ultimate goal of student independence in mind. Self-managed classrooms are silent and still at times, when that fits the nature of the work. Students can sit up straight when needed, following the speaker with attention and courtesy. At other times, self-managed classrooms are alive with movement and a productive “buzz” of discussion, problem-solving, critique, and creation when the work demands activity and collaboration. Like a real-world workplace, the classroom is often busy with a range of focused and productive independent and group work at the same time.

A Self-Managed Classroom Is Collaborative

A self-managed classroom is committed to collaborative, social construction of knowledge—a community of learners pushing each other’s thinking and building each other’s understanding—in whole class, small group, and paired work. Students are impelled and compelled to share their ideas and understanding with different groups and analyze and critique each other’s ideas. Students often take leadership roles in classroom discussions and protocols, particularly as they get older. Students work together to maintain a classroom climate that is physically and emotionally safe and positive, keep their classroom space neat and organized, and produce high-quality individual and group work. They have individual and collective responsibility for the quality of the classroom culture and learning. It is not just the teacher’s responsibility—it is their shared responsibility.

A Self-Managed Classroom Is Growth-Oriented

In a self-managed classroom, making mistakes is part of the territory. In fact, students and teachers understand that mistakes are not only normal but a necessary sign that learning is occurring. To that end, students demonstrate, analyze, and celebrate academic courage, taking risks to speak up in class, ask questions, pose ideas, and try out new concepts and vocabulary. They are not afraid or embarrassed to show that they care about learning. They understand and discuss the concept of growth mindset—that practice makes you stronger, that engaging in harder work and more challenging problems “grows your brain.” They thrive on embedded cycles of practice, feedback, and documented growth in academics, communication, routines, and procedures.

Additional Resources

Our Collaborative Culture PD Pack provides resources to help educators build classrooms that are respectful, active, collaborative, and growth-oriented. The practices highlighted in the PD Pack are drawn from EL Education’s book, Management in the Active Classroom. PD Packs are guided experiences for individual or group learning

Our library of Management in the Active Classroom videos includes 30 videos. You can access the full collection here.

For more general information about our curriculum, check out our website or our book Your Curriculum Companion: The Essential Guide to Teaching the EL Education K–5 Language Arts Curriculum. If you have questions related to this blog, please email us at: ELcurriculumblog@eleducation.org.